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Vimicro ICs eye handset mainstream

Posted: 01 Jun 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Mike Clendenin? EE Times? Vimicro Corp.? multimedia chips? Vinno I?

After making its mark in image processors for PC cameras, then moving into audio chips for cellphones, Chinese fabless company Vimicro Corp. is bringing it all together in its first line of multimedia chips for midrange feature phones.

The company is ramping up two chips based on a reconfigurable architecture that will help it ante up for a position in the rapidly expanding mainstream segment of the market.

The Vinno I (VC868) is made on TSMC's 0.18m process and supports an embedded 1.3Mpixel camera processor, MP3 decoder, JPEG codec, 64-channel MIDI synthesizer, 3D sound processor, and NAND flash and SD/MMC card controllers.

The Vinno II (VC858) uses a 0.13m process. Powered by an ARM9 core, it includes a 2Mpixel camera processor and covers a wider range of decoders, such as MP3, AAC/AAC+ and WMA. It also includes a MIDI synthesizer and game engine, and supports MPEG-4 and H.264 to facilitate videoconferencing.

The rollout of the Vinnofor "vision and innovation"line makes Vimicro more competitive against its smaller domestic rivals, such as Chipnuts and Jade Technology, and also puts it in direct competition with a host of companies from Taiwan, the United States and Europe. Vimicro insists it's not behind the curve, saying there is still plenty of opportunity for design wins in the feature-phone market, where consumers are starting to demand better quality.

Mobile audio market
With its background in image processingtwo of its founders are co-founders of Pixim Inc.Vimicro has done well in the PC camera image processor market. Instead of trying to bring that technology to cellphones directly, the company pursued the audio chip market for cellphones to hone its expertise there.

"We felt mobile audio was a better market for us because at the time, the camera processor was very low-end and people were comfortable with poor-quality images. There was no color processing, so we couldn't add much value there," said Dave Yang, CTO and a co-founder of Vimicro. "With audio, we had to do more innovation."

With 1.3Mpixels firmly established as the camera resolution on mainstream cellphones, and 2Mpixel and 3Mpixel becoming more popular, Vimicro feels its image-processing algorithms are more useful. And with video slowly gaining popularity, the demands on mainstream feature phones will create more opportunities for design-ins of low-power multimedia chips.

Now that the company has struck with its multimedia offering, Yang thinks its reconfigurable platform will help it keep up with the fast-changing needs of the multimedia cellphone. But "it doesn't solve 100 percent of the problems," he said.

Physical verification is still a bottleneck. Making sure the chip is compatible with the major baseband providers is time-consuming, and mixed-signal design is always a challenge. So Vinno is building up its engineering team. Today, the company numbers some 500 people, up from about 350 a year ago.

"We have a lot of experience in mixed-signal and analog design as well as architectures, in terms of how to partition hardware and software tasks. We have a solid SoC platform that we have tuned for multimedia," Yang said.

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times

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